In today’s issue of The Recorder, an online legal news’ media that publishes articles of interest to lawyers everywhere, there is one having to do with the award of attorneys’ fees in high-profile, expensive litigation. Not everyone can afford the annual subscription to this fine publication, but I am covering the cost for my subscription so I can bring to my fellow lawyers anything that strikes me as particularly newsworthy in state courts.
In this issue, there’s a fine piece of reporting by Scott Graham, one of the online paper’s court-assigned journalists, this one regarding the ruling of federal district court Judge Vincent Battaglia, in San Diego’s district, of over $3.9 million in fees following a $20,000 jury’s verdict. In a situation often confronted by lawyers in ugly litigation situations, the rubber hits the road when a judge is asked to decide the size of the fees to be awarded to the “prevailing party” when the exhausting litigation is finally over.
This case was not a simple neighborhood boundary dispute with $20,000 in damages and $4 million in legal fees to get there. This was a complicated trademark infringement case involving San Diego Comic Con’s efforts to stop Salt Lake Comic Con from using, you guessed it, “Comic Con” without affiliation or authority. San Diego Comic Con won and one issue for Judge Battaglia was in assessing fees (besides deciding whether to grant a future injunction as a final remedy). As to the assessment of fees, you can imagine the defense argument, that a $20,000 victory cannot reasonably support an award of attorneys’ fees of many millions of dollars.
That defense argument lost the day. The attorneys asserting that argument will be recycling it for their appeal to the Ninth Circuit. Importantly, as part of the record on appeal, the prevailing plaintiff apparently was able to persuade the trial court that defense tactics caused a good part of the huge amount of fees incurred.
Some interesting observations and points of contemplation for litigators everywhere come from this trial court result as to fees. First, the conduct of the defense trial counsel is going to be directly at issue on any appeal as to the fees. The basis of Judge Battaglia’s ruling as to the amount of the fees is to a pertinent degree, according to Mr. Graham’s reporting, because the defense litigated the case in an unreasonable manner, which means the counsel for defendant is in a very hot seat. Second, this case shows the futility of some outcomes. It’s obvious from the article’s summary of the proceedings that the defendants were trying to escape for a long time, and had very little going for them. The outcome reflects that kind of losing litigation strategy. Third, it shows how the drama of the case, and its legal machinations, becomes a driving force that often leads to destruction. As a reader of the article, I am left with the impression this case should have been settled long ago. I am left to wonder if Judge Battaglia didn’t have the same impression as he was deciding how much to award in fees in this case.
If you want to follow this case more closely, you can start with Mr. Graham’s article in The Recorder.